Lest it be mistaken for “staring at the faces of people for 80 minutes”, Visitors continues a theme begun in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988): GIF: The Movie. It feels more comfortable to place Godfrey Reggio alongside photographers than filmmakers. More so than the Qatsi trilogy (1982-2002), Visitors feels more at home at an art exhibition than on a stream played through MUBI on a laptop screen. Visitors is not detached from the trilogy either – combining visuals with Philip Glass’ music, we see a sequence of time lapse photography of brutalist skyscrapers, drawing an immediate parallel to Koyaanisqatsi, only now cast in monochrome.
Taking a break from editing my own photography in Photoshop, it’s important to stress that monochrome is its own aesthetic: it’s not just to look edgy, or to create the illusion of age. To remove colour is to remove distraction or identifying features: all we have is our own eyes, and the canvas is ours to distinguish on our own terms.
Koyaanisqatsi could hold onto a vague thread of narrative, yet Visitors must truly be considered non-narrative filmmaking. There are some recurring elements – the surface of the moon (the only part of the film in colour, where we see the blue of the Earth glare out at us), or the face of a gorilla – but that’s about it. I found it easy to draw parallels between Koyaanisqatsi and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), whilst the fourth wall breaking closing scene, as with Movie Camera, reveals the artifice of the image on screen fades away to reveal rows of people in a theater: a Reggio’s dream of packed rows, though I somehow doubt the actual theaters watching this film were this packed.
The film invites us to speculate. Why did the subjects of the film agree to be involved? How much did they get paid to stand in front of the camera and make expressions? Why did Steven Soderbergh decide to jump in and get involved, as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas had done so with Powaqqatsi? What was the board meeting like where they described the concept of the film? Yet there are other questions than the obvious ones. One begins to deconstruct what a person’s life is – or even their age, gender, etc., projecting onto them based on their faces alone, when one’s mental image could be very different from the reality. It frequently becomes uncomfortable; whilst time passes, I never felt I was waiting for it to finish. It’s a world to lose yourself in, where time loses all meaning.
Visitors feels like a digital progression from Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi must have been absolutely stunning when it was released, and whilst it does still hold that power, the predominance of cameras, and drone footage in vlogs by Casey Neistat and many others, capturing similar photography without a major budget or in their own time,- have somewhat nullified it, compared to the many years spent compiling and editing the footage used in Koyaanisqatsi. Visitors could only be done digitally, with the technology to compile time lapses with speed, and slow down footage without feeling unnatural or jittery.